What is the setting of the first chapter of The Book Thief? 

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durbanville eNotes educator| Certified Educator

By way of introduction and in setting the mood for The Book Thief, Marcus Zusak purposefully introduces Death before the reader meets Liesel or becomes aware of the World War II element and the imminent devastation that follows. The setting at the beginning is an abstract place which requires the reader to visualize and is not one usually associated with death. Although the reader meets "Death" immediately and is faced with the stark reminder that "you are going to die," Zusak, in forcing the reader to face his own mortality, then creates calm by talk of colors. The reader is transported into an almost dream-like state away from the reality of death. Zusak suggests that even "Death" itself feels the devastation too as it watches people,"crumbling among the jigsaw puzzle of realization, despair, and surprise." 

Death is a confusing issue at the best of times and people feel sadness and shock and so they try to find some relief in distractions and in thinking about the good times, for example. Interestingly, this is also how "Death" feels- in need of something to "keep me sane." Zusak wants the reader to feel the pain of the "left-over humans," the survivors and to find reassurance in the fact that "your soul will be in my arms."  

In creating the mood, an important element of the setting, the reader should consider how unusual it is that death requires our sympathy. Zusak creates this initial setting outside of the physical setting of Germany in a place that is relative to the reader rather than the story at this stage and before the reader is introduced to the historical setting of World War II ensuring that there is no distinct historical period  yet. The reader will ultimately understand that death does not pick sides, is not prejudiced, is not relative only to war or specific locations but is timeless and is universal - no-one escapes death.